28 June 2012

"Billy Elliot: The Musical"

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Janet Dickinson, Rich Hebert, Patti Perkins, Cullen R. Titmas
Introducing Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske
Choreography by Peter Darling
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Date of Performance: 27 June 2012
Whitney Hall - Kentucky Center for the Arts

Did I actually attend a musical? Yarp. A friend of mine had a pair of tickets she couldn't use and she offered them free of charge on Facebook to keep them from going to waste. That led to me going with a woman I'd never met who, as it turns out, is also the sister of another of my friends (they're not very close, hence my inability to make the connection myself). None of this really matters, of course, but I wanted to make clear that my attendance at all was a combination of generosity, specific timing and my own predilection for pursuing impulse decisions that seem like they could prove to be a lark.

I knew absolutely nothing about Billy Elliot: The Musical until we arrived at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I didn't even know there had already been a movie version. The premise is simple enough: it's 1984 and Lady Thatcher is hellbent on busting the coal union, exerting tremendous pressure on the small mining towns across the United Kingdom. In one such community is an 11 year old boy, Billy Elliot, whose unique aptitude for ballet is entirely inconsistent with the conservative nature of his environment.

Ty Forhan performed as Billy in the performance we saw, and I was very impressed by him. His manner of speaking was quite unique in that it did not feel like typical youth stage speaking, a point made explicitly clear whenever the actor playing Michael appeared onstage (it was either Cameron Clifford or Jacob Zelonky; I missed it if it was mentioned). Forhan's inflections and volume were not at all the kind of stage voice to which I am accustomed. In one scene, he shares with his ballet mentor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson), a letter from his deceased mother. He half-sings the letter to her, and his voice became appropriately shaky. I confess, I grimaced a bit and even felt on the verge of becoming teary-eyed when his voice cracked. Maybe that was just puberty, but it was moving all the same.

One element of musicals that has never worked for me is spontaneous dancing. In Billy Elliot, I found it worked very well. Much of the dancing is either a moment of in-story dancing (i.e., the ballet class practice where the character is meant to be performing) or the song and dance numbers were used as a stylistic shorthand for the subplot of the miners' strike, including several escalating altercations with the police.

I am, of course, familiar with the perspective of dance being an expression of emotion not easily articulated in any other way. I've accepted it as a valid philosophy but never been particularly impressed by it...until this. Forhan's dances felt organic to me, rather than the artificial routines to which I am accustomed. Each movement felt like part of a natural progression to his emotional manifestation. His arms reached, and I felt his hopefulness; he fell prostrate to the floor and I knew how discouraged he was. I have never actually felt as though I was following along with someone's emotions through their dance before this. Kudos to choreographer Peter Darling - and to Ty Forhan!

I did, however, have very mixed feelings about the story itself. There's a very clear conflict between the arts and the working class miners, who are disinclined toward that kind of abstract stuff. We're clearly meant to sympathize with the miners as victims of Lady Thatcher's regime, but they're also the antagonists of Billy's personal arc. Billy's talent eventually helps break through some of their prejudices toward the ballet and arts in general, but I could easily see a lot of working class people being rightly offended at being portrayed as ignorant bigots. I don't doubt the verisimilitude of the story, growing up as I did in a small town likewise disinclined toward anything of fancy. Still, the message is very clearly so pro-arts that I'm unclear what lesson the arts world was supposed to learn from this, except reinforcement of the belief they're more enlightened than working class people.

More troubling was the matter of the heteronormative/cisgender/cissexual content including pervasive jokes about dance being for "poofs." I confess: I have always had very little patience for over-the-top, "fabulous" queens. The theatricality grates on my nerves, and Michael is such a character. He enthusiastically wears feminine clothing, even leading to an entire dance number that bizarrely culminates with backup dancers performing as anthropomorphic dresses. Michael's enthusiasms are played for laughs throughout the musical and it seemed unclear to me whether it was meant as an in-joke for the LGBTQ-friendly musical viewing demographic or if it was simply insensitive toward the transsexual community. Whether because that made my spider-sense tingle or because of the aforementioned issue I had with the actor's line delivery, I found little of the humor involving the character actually amusing.

I will say, however, that next to the letter reading sequence, my favorite moment in the whole thing involves Michael. It's Christmastime and the boys are about to part ways after a community-wide party, when Michael places Billy's hands on his chest. When asked why he did that, Michael suggests that he's trying to warm Billy's hands before he goes. Then he leans in and kisses his friend on the cheek. There was a tenderness to it that I found genuinely touching. I was actually sad for Michael when Billy recoiled, falling back on the heteronormative/cissexual/cisgender theme of insisting that just because he's into ballet doesn't mean he's gay. At the end of the story, when Billy leaves town, he does make a point to kiss Michael on the cheek when they exchange goodbyes. That made me smile.

Ultimately, then, I would say that I was extremely impressed by the execution, but troubled by the story itself. When it's just about Billy, it shines; when it gets into the various subplots, it gets rather murky.

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